A Death in Iraq
from SteynOnline, October 12th 2004
FOR THE FIRST time in all my years with the Telegraph Group, I had a column pulled today. The editor expressed concerns about certain passages and we were unable to reach agreement, so on this Tuesday something else will be in my space.
I’d written about Kenneth Bigley, seized with two American colleagues but unlike them not beheaded immediately. Instead, sensing that they could exploit potential differences within “the coalition of the willing”, the Islamists played a cat-and-mouse game with Mr Bigley’s life, in which Fleet Street, the British public, governments in London and Dublin and Islamic lobby groups in the United Kingdom were far too willing to participate. As I always say, the point is not whether you’re sad about someone’s death, but what you’re prepared to do about it. What “Britain” – from Ken Bigley’s brother to the Foreign Secretary – did was make it more likely that other infidels will meet his fate.
I suppose the Telegraph felt it was a little heartless. Well, tough. This is a war, and misplaced mawkishness will lead to more deaths. In August 2001, I wrote as follows about the first anniversary of 9/11, when coverage was threatening to go the way of Princess Di and mounds of teddy bears:
Three thousand people died on September 11th, leaving a gaping hole in the lives of their children, parents, siblings and friends. Those of us who don’t fall into those categories are not bereaved and, by pretending to be, we diminish the real pain of those who really feel it. That’s not to say that, like many, I wasn’t struck by this or that name that drifted up out of the great roll-call of the dead. Newsweek’s Anna Quindlen ‘fastened on’, as she put it, one family on the flight manifest:
Peter Hanson, Massachusetts
Susan Hanson, Massachusetts
Christine Hanson, 2, Massachusetts
As Miss Quindlen described them, ‘the father, the mother, the two-year old girl off on an adventure, sitting safe between them, taking flight.’ Christine Hanson will never be three, and I feel sad about that. But I did not know her, love her, cherish her; I do not feel her loss, her absence in my life. I have no reason to hold hands in a ‘healing circle’ for her. All I can do for Christine Hanson is insist that the terrorist movement which killed her is hunted down and prevented from targeting any more two-year olds. We honour Christine Hanson’s memory by righting the great wrong done to her, not by ersatz grief-mongering.
That’s the way I feel about Kenneth Bigley. Here’s the column the Telegraph declined to publish:
WHETHER OR not it is, in the technical sense, a “joke”, I find myself, with the benefit of hindsight, in agreement with Billy Connolly’s now famous observation on Kenneth Bigley – “Aren’t you the same as me, don’t you wish they would just get on with it?”
Had his killers “just got on with it”, they would have decapitated Mr Bigley as swiftly as they did his two American confreres. But, sensing that there was political advantage to be gained in distinguishing the British subject from his fellow hostages, they didn’t get on with it, and the intervening weeks reflected poorly on both Britain and Mr Bigley.
None of us can know for certain how we would behave in his circumstances, and very few of us will ever face them. But, if I had to choose the very last last words I’d want to find myself uttering in this life, “Tony Blair has not done enough for me” would be high up on the list. First, because it’s the all but official slogan of modern Britain, the dull rote whine of the churlish citizen invited to opine on waiting lists or public transport, and thus unworthy of the uniquely grisly situation in which Mr Bigley found himself. And, secondly, because those words are so at odds with the spirit of a life spent, for the most part, far from these islands, first as a “ten pound pom” in Oz and New Zealand, and later in more exotic outposts of empire. Ken Bigley seems to have found contemporary Britain a dreary, insufficient place and I doubt he cared about who was Prime Minister from one decade to the next. Had things gone differently and had his fate befallen some other expatriate, and had he chanced upon a month-old London newspaper in his favourite karaoke bar up near the Thai-Cambodian border and read of the entire city of Liverpool going into a week of Dianysian emotional masturbation over some deceased prodigal son with no inclination to return whom none of the massed ranks of weeping Scousers from the Lord Mayor down had ever known, Mr Bigley would surely have thanked his lucky stars that he and his Thai bride were about as far from his native sod as it’s possible to get.
While Ken Bigley passed much of his life as a happy expat, his brother Paul appears to have gone a stage further and all but seceded. Night and day, he was on TV explaining to the world how the Bigley family’s Middle East policy is wholly different from Her Majesty’s Government – a Unilateral Declaration of Independence accepted de facto by Mr Blair’s ministry when it dispatched Jack Straw to Merseyside to present formally his condolences to the Bigleys, surely the most extraordinary flying visit ever undertaken by a British Foreign Secretary. For their pains, the government was informed by Paul Bigley that the Prime Minister had “blood on his hands”. This seems an especially stupid and contemptible formulation when anyone with an Internet connection can see Ken Bigley’s blood and the hand it’s literally on holding up his head.
It reminded me of Robert Novak of The Chicago Sun-Times back in May, quoting “one senior official of a coalition partner” calling for the firing of Donald Rumsfeld on the grounds that “there must be a neck cut, and there is only one neck of choice.”
At pretty much that exact moment in Iraq, Nick Berg’s captors were cutting his head off - or, rather, feverishly hacking it off while raving “Allahu akhbar!” - God is great. The difference between the participants in this war is that on one side robust formulations about “blood on his hands” and “calls for the Defence Secretary’s head” are clichéd metaphors, and on the other they mean it.
Paul Bigley can be forgiven his clumsiness: he’s a freelancer winging it. But the feelers put out by the Foreign Office to Ken Bigley’s captors are more disturbing: by definition, they confer respectability on the head-hackers and increase the likelihood that Britons and other foreigners will be seized and decapitated in the future. The United Kingdom, like the government of the Philippines when it allegedly paid a ransom for the release of its Iraqi hostages, is thus assisting in the mainstreaming of jihad.
By contrast with the Fleet Street-Scouser-Whitehall fiasco of the last three weeks, consider Fabrizio Quattrocchi, murdered in Iraq on April 14th. In the moment before his death, he yanked off his hood and cried defiantly, “I will show you how an Italian dies!” He ruined the movie for his killers. As a snuff video and recruitment tool, it was all but useless, so much so that the Arabic TV stations declined to show it.
If the FCO wants to issue advice in this area, that’s the way to go: If you’re kidnapped, accept you’re unlikely to survive, say “I’ll show you how an Englishman dies”, and wreck the video. If they want you to confess you’re a spy, make a little mischief: there are jihadi from Britain, Italy, France, Canada and other western nations all over Iraq – so say yes, you’re an MI6 agent, and so are those Muslims from Tipton and Luton who recently joined the al-Qaeda cells in Samarra and Ramadi. As Churchill recommended in a less timorous Britain: You can always take one with you. If Tony Blair and other government officials were to make that plain, that would be, to use Mr Bigley’s word, “enough”.
And, if you don’t want to wind up in that situation, you need to pack heat and be prepared to resist at the point of abduction. I didn’t give much thought to decapitation when I was mooching round the Sunni Triangle last year, but my one rule was that I was determined not to get into a car with any of the locals and I was willing to shoot anyone who tried to force me. If you’re not, you shouldn’t be there.
Perhaps it’s easy to say that. Ken Bigley, after all, was blasé about personal security. Tootling around Iraq in his very conspicuous SUV, he told chums, “I’m not afraid. You only die once.” In the end, he revised his insouciance, grasping for a shot at a second chance. I know the Ken Bigley on display these last few weeks is not the measure of the man. But that’s all the more reason why in dangerous times and dangerous places one should give some thought to what they used to call a “good death”. None of the above would have guaranteed Mr Bigley’s life, but it would have given him, as it did Signor Quattrocchi, a less pitiful end, and it would have spared the world a glimpse of the feeble and unserious Britain of the last few weeks. The jihadists have become rather adept at devising tests customized for each group of infidels: Madrid got bombed, and the Spaniards failed their test three days later; the Australian Embassy in Jakarta got bombed, but the Aussies held firm and re-elected John Howard’s government anyway. With Britain, the Islamists will have drawn many useful lessons from the decadence and defeatism on display.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
A Death In Iraq
Mark Steyn reposted this column a while ago. I ask his forbearance, and reproduce it in its entirety here, if for no other reason than you remember this name: Fabrizio Quattrochi.